Body Positivity (Ish): Thoughts on a Movement by Emily Rapp Black

Editor Acacia Blackwell, Editor's Choice, January 7th, 2019

"I don’t love my body, and this makes me feel like I’m failing."

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Personal Essay by Emily Rapp Black

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In 1989 when I was fifteen years old, I bought a dress from the J.Crew magazine using the money I made working at the call-in catalogue order center for the Cabela’s. There I earned a handful of dollars during each shift placing orders for camouflage pants, canteens, parkas, tents, and the occasional “deer drag.” I was what my father described as a “violent vegetarian,” but I needed the money: for a car, for trips to the mall, for college.

My dress arrived in a plastic mailer, which felt fancy and special. Delivery for you! my dad shouted, and tossed the package up to the top landing where I had been dutifully waiting for weeks for the mail to be delivered. Inside, nestled in carefully folded tissue paper, was a cotton mock turtleneck dress that fell to mid-calf in a dark green color that matched my eyes. It cost $50; the most I’d ever spent on anything. At this time I still wore a wooden leg, having lost my left foot as a result of a birth defect when I was four. The leg was clunky, messy, and it routinely leaked motor oil that my father used to keep the hinges from sticking. I avoided miniskirts entirely.

When I slipped the dress over my head, I was surprised at how good it looked. For someone who never showed her body, or at least not the lower half (which I also deliberately avoided looking at in mirrors), I was excited about how I looked from the waist up. The dress hid everything I wanted to hide, and emphasized everything I wanted to show. At the time, this felt like winning.

The next morning, I wound Clairol Hot Stix into my hair to make tight ringlets, applied Jean Nate body splash to my neck, and powder puffed my face with Maybelline shimmer powder. I was feeling fine; I had noticed that boys – particularly one boy in my science class – had taken note of my new curves. Maybe the leg wouldn’t matter, I thought, although I didn’t linger too long here, because deep down, I knew it did, and that it would. And I was right.

As I walked down the stairs to grab my mobile breakfast of a Snickers bar and a Diet Pepsi and drive to school, my grandmother passed through the hallway. I braced for a compliment. She looked me up and down, made a dismissive phhht sound and said, “It sure is a good thing you’re smart.”

I skipped breakfast that day, and most meals for the next year.

My grandmother is dead now, and decades later I understand that she was a woman battling her own demons, and that she was the most unkind to those she wanted to love the most. I’m no longer anorexic, having moved past that stage in my 20s. But the impact her comment had on my self-esteem is a phenomenon I’m still working to unpack. I grew up in a loving, supportive family. My parents were happily married, both gainfully employed, and always careful to tell me that I was smart and beautiful. They supported my endeavors unconditionally. I always felt safe and loved. Yet I still loathed my body with a force that, at 44, still astounds me. As a disabled woman growing up in a tiny town with no role models, I came to believe that there were two options for me: object of pity, or a superstar in some capacity. I chose the latter, driving myself to achieve, to be the skinniest, the smartest, the best until those delineations no longer mattered to me, or didn’t matter to me as much.

For these reasons and many others, the “body positivity” movement deeply unsettles me, stirring up a potent mix of emotions: shock, shame, envy, guilt, in a variable order. I came of age before social media sharing and selfies and filters and internet celebrity. Recently I have begun to follow several social media feeds of amputee women who are at the beach without their legs; or showing off their fancy, flowered artificial limbs; or demonstrating an ease in their bodies that still feels unimaginable to me. Their message is timely, relevant, important and clear: this is my body, and I love it. I recognize that this is, in many ways, the bedrock of self-esteem, especially in a culture that continues to judge women first and foremost on appearance alone. Yet I find myself feeling uncomfortable, because I know I could not be like them. People applaud them for being brave, although I’m not sure it’s the right word. Perhaps it’s more of a radical acceptance of oneself, an authentic claiming of beauty despite society’s rigid and truly impossible airbrushed standards. I know this, I applaud this, and I also wonder, is it true? Is it possible these women are never bothered by stares or weird and inappropriate comments?  Is it true that they’ve never felt anxiety in intimate situations?

In my mid 40s, I’m right at the edge of what many women call the moment of “invisibility,” at least in terms of a culture that, despite many people’s best efforts, defines beauty as young, scar and stretch mark and wrinkle free. And definitely not disabled. And yet I scold myself for holding onto this body shame at my age. Why can’t I just move past all of this? I know that cultural standards of what makes a beautiful woman are false and arbitrary and accessible to very few. I know that a woman’s worth is not rooted in her appearance. I also know that I am and have felt desirable; and I do know that feeling beautiful is an inside job, buffered only for brief moments by external praise.  I know this, and yet…I don’t love my body, and this makes me feel like I’m failing at the body positivity game. I feel like a fraud, or that I’m letting other women with disabilities down by refusing to be seen without my artificial limb in public. Yet part of me also wonders: is this public body positive rhetoric masking something else? Are people truly that comfortable with themselves? Possibly, but I also think that like so much that appears in social media and that we notice in “movements,” the narrative is oversimplified.

I want to be the woman who throws her leg off at the beach and goes confidently sprint-hopping into the surf. I want to be the woman who wakes up and loves her body regardless of what she reads or sees about disabled bodies and women’s bodies in the media. I want comments like “what happened to you?” or “So, we’re just gimping around today?,” or “Wow, you get around well for your situation,” to roll off my back as I imagine it does for the women who post photos of their non-normative bodies with pride and confidence. I so admire that they do this, but I also know I cannot do it. Can’t there be a middle ground?

The reality is this: I am never going to frequent a public pool, or frolic in the surf of any beach anywhere without my water leg. I’m never going to know exactly how to respond when someone responds to my body as if it’s an object of interest, and not a body that has been through more than its fair share of trauma as well as joy; plenty of sex and meaningful relationships, and the birth of two children. I’m never going to quite believe my husband when he tells me I’m the most beautiful woman he’s ever known. And frankly, I’m never going to stop wishing that I had two legs, but that doesn’t mean that I hate my body, or don’t accept it or sometimes even love what it can do or how it looks, or haven’t come to terms with the fact that I cannot change it. I want to stop beating myself up about treading this middle ground, about not being able to love my body, unconditionally and without apology, all the time.

When I was four years old, about six months after my leg was amputated, my family drove to central Illinois, where my parents grew up and where my uncle and aunt and three cousins still lived. During those hot and humid summers, everyone went to the water park, but I had not yet been fitted with an artificial limb, was still on crutches, and could not climb the stairs to any slides. My cousin Kate, then ten years old, was mortified that I would be left out, so she offered to carry me. And she did. She carried me on her back up the stairs to the water slide, hour after day, for three days straight, in the hot Midwestern summer. I still remember how her back felt as she carried me, and the strain she was willing to endure to gift me with an experience I would never have had otherwise: an act of kindness and effort that has stayed with me all my life.

I’ve come to this conclusion: we carry one another in whatever ways we can. I won’t be joining those proud and beautiful women on Instagram and other social media outlets who show their bodies without shame or sadness, but I will always be rooting for them – enthusiastically – from the sidelines.

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Header image courtesy of Bill Dunlap. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

 Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, and The Still Point of the Turning World, which was a New York Times bestseller. She has two books forthcoming in 2020: Cartography for Cripples (New York Review of Books); and Sanctuary (Random House). Her work has appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Redbook, O, the Oprah Magazine, Slate, Salon, the Wall Street Journal, the Rumpus, and in many other magazines and anthologies. A former Fulbright scholar, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Writers Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California-Riverside, and lives in Southern California with her family. Visit her at www.emilyrappblack.com

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Acacia Blackwell

Acacia is a writer from Portland, OR, which suits her because sunshine gives her anxiety. She is currently completing an MFA, despite being recently told by Tom Spanbauer that to become a better writer, she needs to "unlearn all that grad school stuff." She listened, and it seems to be working. Acacia is working on a collection of personal essays that she really doesn't want to admit might be a memoir, and a memoir that she really doesn't want to admit might be a novel.